Employees demand stronger purpose-led orgs where there is continual evidence that the company is putting that above profit. It’s a clear motivating factor for recruitment and retention and organisations that get this right will see accelerated growth as these motivated and committed employees focus on their mission.

When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.

As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Emily Dent.

Emily Dent is a Partner and Director of Transformation at innovation and transformation consultancy &us, leading global organisations and teams through the thinking and practices to become more innovative. Emily spent her early career as a journalist, and as head of content and community at award-winning independent creative agency St. Luke’s. She’s since led market-defining start-ups, worked on the Olympics in 2012, and for the last 10 years has worked as a consultant at innovation consultancies.

She is passionate about changing the world for the better, by working with organisations and individuals to think about what the future might hold.

The principles of playfulness, iteration and collaboration underpin how she likes to get things done, and she’s just as motivated by finding an elegant answer as by the development journey people go on.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

I’m the daughter of a social justice pioneer and a communications and space tech engineer so it’s no wonder that I love solving complex puzzles. I’ve loved finding and telling stories since I was young, and so I fuse problem solving and storytelling in my work today — helping people and organisations shape their own futures.

I’ve always been a bit of an outsider and have chosen a life off the beaten path. I’ve rarely done what’s expected of me. My tutor at university told me he thought I’d either be a millionaire or in prison by the age of 40. Neither of those things have happened, yet, but I think an alternative perspective is the thing that our clients most value in me

What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?

The future is anyone’s to predict, and a lot can happen in 15 years that will shift the world one way or another.

Climate disaster, economic meltdown, mass migration, falling birth rates, China, the breakup of the political experiments of Europe and probably the USA, the advent of AI, the metaverse… these things are coming down the tunnel at us at warp speed, and are already impacting the employer-employee relationship, shifting market paradigms, totally changing the way people buy everything.

And these things are well understood, but most large organisations are still not set up to withstand the increasing earthquakes and aftereffects we’ll experience in our lifetimes.

If you want to survive as an organisation, it is mission critical that you rethink the way you are structured, the skills you need in-house, and the systems and processes you have so that you are capable of both pivoting away from disaster and quickly capitalising on opportunity. It’s why the work we do adds real value because it helps organisations build their muscles for resilience, flexibility and adaptability and flex them in their everyday working practices.

Business agility will become even more essential in the next 3 years, let alone the next 15. Sadly, most organisations aren’t seriously investing in liberating their talent to have always-on transformation driving their business growth.

The choice as to whether a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high-profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?

Follow your passions. Sometimes you need a degree to give you the technical skills, licenses or — equally valid — networks to do what you really love. More often than not these days you don’t.

Increasingly, apprenticeships are becoming a viable option for all sorts of jobs, so don’t be afraid to investigate what’s on offer outside a classic university education.

Finally, it’s always who you know, not what you know. Do anything you can to build yourself connections and new networks. Ask for help. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?

I think it’s about thinking laterally. We need to stop thinking about careers as ladders, and start thinking about them as adventures. Very few talents and interests are innate. It’s more likely about exposure. So try stuff, work hard to bank the learning, be patient, seek mentors, and don’t be afraid to move when you feel there’s a learning opportunity worth jumping at.

The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appears frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?

Robots are amazing at being robots. They are faster, more accurate and can crunch through repetitive tasks better than any individual human ever will. So don’t specialise in implementing tasks robots will be able to do.

But (as yet), humans still need to define, programme — and mind — the robots to do their work.

The rarest — and most needed — skills will be creative design, collaboration, influence and actually getting things done at speed. It’s what we look for in potential employees at &us, and so our team come from an array of traditional and non-traditional backgrounds, also meaning they bring diverse perspective.

Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?

I see two things happening.

Firstly, there’s a social divide between people who can work from home and those who cannot. Cleaners, people who work in hospitality or factories, lab scientists, vets, our whole food industry, healthcare workers. Most of that can’t change, but wages are sliding in these essential industries. Knowledge workers can work from home and will have more disposable income. This will be increasingly problematic as the inequalities and privilege become more apparent.

Secondly, in the knowledge economy, we’re going to see some interesting debates about the balance of community good versus individual need. Senior people don’t need to work from an office, but you cannot create experience osmosis for less experienced people over zoom. It’ll be a long time until virtual environments are good enough to replace the speed, creativity, and social bond that in person collaboration sessions generate, but that means people will have to place common goals above the convenience of their own homeworking. These are the kinds of grown up negotiations we’re going to have to have and we’ve helped/are helping organisations like Novartis, HP and Macmillan navigate these kinds of conversations in a way that works for their business goals, and the kinds of people they employ. .

What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?

We need to reimagine everything about how an organisation is run and structured to thrive in the post-pandemic, increasingly volatile world. We can no longer operate in 20th century models of skills, structures, processes, or behaviours.

And frankly, I think this overhaul starts with our education systems. The skills, knowledge, and confidence that our children will need are completely different from the skills our parents needed, yet we are still teaching our kids broadly the same things in the same ways. Expertise is going to become increasingly less important (beyond some important vocations), and the ability to be curious, make sense of complexity, collaborate to make things are going to be increasingly critical. I think this is an economic crisis-in-waiting.

Unfortunately, I think organisations are going to have to take the responsibility for re-tooling their workforces fast. Learning and Development (L&D) functions will have a more central role in updating the ways of working and getting people to forge new paths together in high ambiguity. This great re-tooling is going to be costly and uncomfortable, and there’s no shortcut.

We see first-hand how an identity crisis can occur in organisations who are starting an agile transformation but struggle to let go of hierarchical control. There’s a schism between people (often mid-senior leaders) who are comfortable with how things are and who sabotage change, and people who see the opportunity in a more fluid organisation and who want to push hard to get there. The chasm between those two camps is causing a lot of organisational pain, and it’s not an easy solution. But it is achievable — we’re helping our clients do it.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?

I think we are going to have to do more experiments in universal basic income, 4 day work weeks, mental health education and provision and the invention of new kinds of insurance that can help organisations better support their employees.

Beyond that, I think we need to be brave enough to have a great debate in society at large, and within organisations about how to be better communities. The biggest issue I see is the pendulum swing towards greater individualism, fiercer competition, and a scarcity mindset.

I really believe kindness and generosity are radical acts in today’s climate.

Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

The future is ours to create. And given the current failure of political systems to address some fairly fundamental issues, businesses and organisations can be a vehicle for creating a brighter future.

We’re already seeing a mass movement towards businesses not just admitting their moral responsibilities, but actually putting their money behind it. Unilever and PepsiCo’s commitment to building sustainable supply chains and materials are good examples of effort at scale to invest in doing business differently.

In addition, the cost of entry to starting a business has dramatically lowered, and the biggest GDP growth is going to come from small to medium sized businesses, not unicorns. So, there’s a lot of opportunity for brave souls who think differently to use their endeavours to nudge in the right direction. As we say at &us, “Let’s make progress”.

Lastly, I have a 5-year-old. Her understanding and passion for a different world — from diversity to creativity to climate — is infectious. And we’ve got to do everything we can to make sure they are set up for a whole new world.

Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?

Unfortunately, I think that lies in the hands of policymakers and the big bets of big businesses. Vote. Have ideas. Be noisy.

What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?”

  1. The rise of extreme employee individualization.

The pandemic has totally reset the social contract between employers and employees. The shifts we see now in — admittedly mostly white collar — employee expectations; individualised benefits, healthy working conditions, more transparent pay, greater appreciation for work-life balance, non-traditional career ladders, a focus on collaborative culture — are in a pendulum swing from employer to employee and are causing great friction.

The demands of employees will continue to rise, and we will see less “company benefits” and more choose your own package. Jobs will be built around individuals skills and interests, and will be project based, not static roles. Employers will have to re-imagine their ability to meet demands of employees as they change.

Gymshark is well known for their unique employee benefits. Their benefits packages cover a range of different areas to reflect their values,they have their teams choose a ‘perk of the week’. and have also teamed up with HSBC to offer personalised financial guidance and financial literacy classes. And sleep wellness brand Eve has recently implemented a flexible public holidays policy, allowing employees to swap out standard UK public holidays such as Christmas and Easter for Eid or Diwali.

2. A focus on employee UX.

Consumer facing tech is often so good, and so intuitive, and many work systems are not — they’re often clunky, opaque and require a team of in-house specialists to manage them. It means people are bogged down by tech rather than being freed by it.

Tools like Slack that are more intuitive, and focussed on making work life better, flexible working easier, and freeing people up to focus less on admin and more on high value tasks — we’ll see more of this kind of solution that thinks about the employee as the consumer, how to make their work experience better, a better UX.

A good example of this is Elevate, an AI driven platform on a mission to help ‘law departments and law firms with practical ways to improve efficiency, quality, and business outcomes’ They use NLP (natural language processing) to leverage the huge amount of technical and nuanced data in the legal field, augmenting lawyers work rather than replacing it.

3. The demand for clear purpose.

Employees demand stronger purpose-led orgs where there is continual evidence that the company is putting that above profit. It’s a clear motivating factor for recruitment and retention and organisations that get this right will see accelerated growth as these motivated and committed employees focus on their mission.

We’ve recently worked with wealth management firm Novia on just this. They’ve got ambitious growth plans and have put purpose at the heart of driving that growth — they understand that uniting their team around a clear and inspiring mission will enable them to all pull in the same direction towards those goals.

4. The demographic shift.

Declining birth rates are leading to a shift to a higher percentage of older people, seeing later and later retirement. Culture and employee expectations will need to change to accommodate this, and the opportunity to harness wisdom that in previous generations was lost. Microsoft is amongst those to recognise the value older employees offer and has launched a raft of age-inclusive policies including things like comprehensive health coverage without employee premiums, offering four paid weeks of annual family caregiver leave; and matched benefits for employees who downshift from full-time to part-time, to retain this experienced talent.

5. Mental health/wellness as a measure/metric of employee satisfaction.

With the pressure of worrying about our physical health and the health of those around us, the coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on the world’s mental health. A recent study on COVID-19 and its impact on mental health found that more than 40% of employees feel hopeless, suffer from burnout, and battle exhaustion at work due to a continual need to adjust to a new reality.

Barclays is tapping into employees stories to strengthen its community and make workers feel like they aren’t alone in their mental health struggles. Through their “This Is Me” campaign, disclosure rates for mental health issues have increased — as has retention, with employees returning to Barclays after mental-health related leaves of absence.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?

“Never turn down an opportunity to swim”

I’m a water baby, and I never feel better than when I’m in a body of water. But I have stopped myself jumping into some beautiful swimming holes because I was nervous or because I thought it would take too long, or simply because I thought I should have done something else. I’ve always regretted the places I didn’t swim. And I think that’s a metaphor for life. It’s too easy to stop ourselves from taking risks or getting off a well-trodden path. I want to be the person who is always brave enough to explore the unknown. That’s where a life well lived is.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I bet Rosalind Brewer has some amazing stories to tell — both about being a black woman in business, and about being a working mother. I’m assuming a lot here, but the resilience to do what she’s done is remarkable.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

On the &us website, and by following me on LinkedIn

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.